▶︎ The Painted Bird is in UK cinemas from 11 September.

Czech writer-director Václav Marhoul is drawn to literary classics of innocence lost in wartime – his Tobruk (2008) transposed Stephen Crane’s American Civil War classic The Red Badge of Courage to North Africa during World War II.

Here, he tackles Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel, long deemed unfilmable for its Cannibal Ferox-level of sexualised ultraviolence against children (also men, women and animals).

A caption insists young actor Petr Kotlar was replaced by adult doubles during tactfully filmed scenes in which the lost boy is raped by a moonshine-manufacturer (Julian Sands) and a woman called Labina (Julia Valentova).

Like One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kosinski’s novel has a narrator who speaks eloquently to the reader but refuses to talk with almost everyone else. Marhoul doesn’t use voiceover, putting the strain on an array of guest performers – a range of international faces speaking a patchwork of dubbed languages – who deliver harsh lessons. Harvey Keitel and Udo Kier, players with track records in transgressive cinema, appear as a dying priest and an eye-gouging miller – while Sands’s ultimate fate, eaten off screen by rats, is a gloss on his role as Dario Argento’s Phantom of the Opera.

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Harvey Keitel as a priest in The Painted Bird

The Boy – analogous to a bird whose wings are blotched with paint, pecked to death by a suddenly hostile flock – is marked as a victim even without the war. In fact, he is treated more kindly by soldiers – a Nazi (Stellan Skarsgård) lets him go, a Soviet sniper (Barry Pepper) gives him a gun – than by a whole range of people who might usually be seen as the victims of war, set against him not because he’s a Jew (often assumed, never quite confirmed) but because he’s Not From Around Here and thus fair game. A witch who buys him as a slave even declares that he’s a vampire.

In an opening scene – invented by Marhoul and guaranteed to send some audiences out of the cinema before the film’s under way – some bullies burn the Boy’s pet ferret alive, without even the excuse of needing it for food. This marks The Painted Bird as perhaps the anti-Jojo Rabbit, a child’s fantasy of WWII as a series of lessons in blank cruelty.

Shooting in lush monochrome widescreen that pastiches Sven Nykvist’s work with Ingmar Bergman, Marhoul approaches the story with a stately, episodic pace that spins a 222-page fast read into nearly three hours of beautiful if ultimately crushing horrors.

Originally published: 10 September 2020